Dr. Chris VanderStouwe

June is National Pride Month, which typically features many large celebrations of LGBTQ+ life and the liberation we have worked so hard over the past 50+ years to achieve, both before and after Stonewall. What started as an uprising in response to police action against the gay community has become time for celebration of who we are and how far we have come. It is also a time to reflect on where we were just a few short decades ago when police raids in queer spaces were common, when people often spent much or all of their lives hiding core aspects of who they were for fear of repercussions. We owe a lot to our queer family who has come before us paving the way.

From the time of Stonewall, drag has played a central role in the gay liberation movement and the evolution of pride celebrations as we now know them. Drag performances are a staple of many modern pride festivities. But this year, as we find ourselves under social distancing guidelines and the cancellation of large events, most of us won’t be outside taking pictures with drag performers or watching headliners grace stages in our parks and streets. Many pride celebrations around the world have been postponed or cancelled entirely. In my community, our city hosted its first pride celebration in 1989 with a few dozen participants of what was then called “Freedom Day,” and donned paper bags over their head to hide their identities. For the 30th anniversary in 2019, about 70,000 people attended in what is now one of the state’s largest events. (You can read about last year’s event and some of our city’s history with pride and LGBTQ issues in this Idaho Statesman article from last June.) This year, it has now been postponed to September, though many larger cities have cancelled all pride festivities, or cities such as Seattle and Los Angeles are working on a fully digital version of pride. However, even without the public exposure often seen during this season, it is important to note that queer performers of all kinds are still extremely active, and holding together a sense of collective identity, pride, and community.

Followers of drag have likely noticed that since stay-at-home orders began in March, many drag performers have taken to social media and digital outlets to continue performing. Large shows have popped up with nationally known entertainers as a way to supplement the lost income from cancelled gigs and loss of day jobs. Even with these attempts, in many cases, the pandemic is causing a strain on the viability of many of the nation’s gay spaces, especially bars, which will likely struggle to recover in many places. In some places, the digital presence of our queer communities has been broader and more directly coordinated with the gay bars affected. In the case of my own community, this has become profoundly crucial to ensuring our continued presence when we can again congregate together.

Drag and Linguistics

As drag performance has become more mainstream and widely accepted, academic studies of drag have also increased. Much of the research lies outside linguistics with a focus on the aesthetics, history, and performativity of drag (e.g. Gudelunas 2017; Moncreif & Lienard 2017; Doonan 2019; Frankel & Ha 2019), with some notable examples in linguistics including work by Rusty Barrett (1998, 1999, 2015 ,2017) and Jeremy Calder (2017, 2019). In understanding the language usage in drag and its distinction from other forms of more lasting linguistic identity construction, Barrett outlines the crucial link between drag and performance, quoting Van Herk (2012) to highlight “the centrality of performance to linguistic studies of drag.” (Barrett 2015). The link between performance and language belies the research I discuss here based on my own long-term ethnographic study in my local drag community.

Preserving the local queer community 

In the Boise queer community, the site of my ongoing ethnographic research of drag language and performativity, the closing of our bars was a starting point for novel approaches to connecting the community and broadening the scope of our influence in town. Our local gay club, The Balcony (named so for its upstairs location overlooking downtown Boise), was the first bar in the area to close out of caution for the rising pandemic. Rather than just turn off the music and shut the lights, the staff worked with dozens of our local community members and performers to create an array of options to stay connected in isolation. We were even featured at the end of this Vice article for the efforts we’ve undertaken as “perhaps the most creative solution to the loss of queer space.”

Spearheading many of the local efforts to maintain a sense of community and continued support for local drag performers was Dugan, the event director at our local gay club. As the closure was approaching, he worked with the bar’s owner and manager to find ways to remain connected. Dugan explained these efforts were taken “to keep the community and performers spirits up, along with what we could possible do to help the performers financially. So once the decision to close the bar was happening we were already brainstorming ideas.” 

When asked about the community response, Dugan shared that:

 "The community is awesome! They have been so involved in watching and supporting, even getting involved with the weekly makeup challenge. MissFyre [a local drag performer married to Dugan] has received emails and messages from families talking to her about how much they enjoy watching her story time and how it has become a family activity to watch her stories together. Also performers have been approached to be part of other organizations online content which is awesome that performers are able to branch out even more.”

The community found ways to come together by providing a robust variety of digital content to still feel close and to provide continued opportunities for growth and networking, that in some cases wouldn’t have been possible just within the walls of the club.

Many of the events and digital ‘programming’ shared through the club’s Facebook page have been intentionally light-hearted, family friendly, or based on ways to get through stay at home orders with as positive a mindset as possible. Rather than having the bar management spearhead all of the possibilities, they went to the performers directly to seek ideas and facilitate sharing them on social media. This led to self-created content from the performers themselves: all-ages-directed drag queen story times, a gardening segment, a cooking segment, a ‘blast from the past’ series talking about nostalgic items and childhood stories. Some of the previous competitors from our local RuPaul style drag competition began a weekly makeup challenge through Instagram with a theme each week that anyone could enter for a chance to win small prizes, such as photo showcases on the club’s Facebook page.

Others have worked to emulate in-person drag or burlesque shows more directly and raise money for out-of-work performers and bar employees. One of the local show producers teamed up with local personality Big Gay Paycen to create a web-based version of their drag and burlesque shows called Web of Sin, providing weekly entertainment with all ticket and tip proceeds going directly to out-of-work entertainers. Those of us who did not experience income loss donated our performances to increase the payout for those most in need. This was one of the most interactive of the creative options – the chat function that accompanied the Vimeo productions served as a virtual bar space, allowing the audience to cheer for each number, chat, and feel a sense of community and camaraderie that so many were desperately missing. 

Perhaps the most poignant moment in the weekly drag and burlesque show that has happened to date came from the show that aired the first weekend in May, the last show featuring local entertainers before a two-week hiatus and a return with a show featuring high-profile burlesque performers. At the end of the show, Paycen (who hosted the show remotely during each of the six weekly shows produced) succinctly explained the goal of the weekly show, and the spirit of our community as we continued be to physically isolated. He shared:

"You know, the queer community has historically had to hide in the shadows, and in recent years we’ve been able to be out and loud and proud members of our communities because we have the ability to gather now at places like bars and nightclubs. 

But when coronavirus became a very real part of our reality and we all sort of had to force ourselves to hide in the shadows, we were concerned that it was going to separate our community like the queer community hasn’t been separated in decades.

You know, I sign off every single Web of Sin by reminding you that just because we’re isolated, it doesn’t mean we have to be alone.

And while connecting virtually isn’t the same as connecting in real life, I would venture to say that the bonds that we’ve formed over the years are powerful enough to withstand any m*f* virus.

Because the bonds that we’ve formed are the same bonds that were formed at Stonewall, and in the ballroom scenes, and history will show us that those bonds can change the m*f* world.”

The reinforcement of togetherness in times of isolation echoed throughout the community via Paycen’s words and the myriad options created to facilitate togetherness, which helped to keep us connected as we continue to await the reopening of our queer spaces and for the chance to interact in person once again.

Moving Forward

Even in a state that began relaxing lockdown earlier than most (including moving the opening of our bars and clubs from June 13 to May 30), in-person events and shows won’t be able to resume right away with social distancing still required inside establishments that do reopen. Some digital content, such as the Web of Sin shows, will move to in-person shows once it is safe to do so. Others, however, may continue periodically. Programming such as “Blast from the Past” and “Goth Gardening” provide outlets to share drag and create community in a format not suited for traditional bar-style events.

As we navigate our ‘new normal’ and seek ways to stay connected and safe, it is important to recognize the work of the local queer performers and leaders in town, since many of these cultural shifts are often spearheaded by minority and underserved communities. Even with the threat of queer bars closing around the country, unrest about stay at home orders, and systemic racial injustice creating challenges for us moving forward, we can find ways to remain connected, present in society, and trailblaze new avenues of engagement. I can’t help but agree with Dugan’s assessment that “our host of our Digital Drag show, Big Gay Paycen, put it best. ‘Even though we are isolated, doesn't mean we are alone.’"

 

Note: Locations and Names have intentionally not been anonymized with permission from all quoted participants.

 

References

Barrett, R. (1998). Markedness and styleswitching in performances by African American drag queens. Codes and consequences: Choosing linguistic varieties, 139-161.

Barrett, R. (1999). Indexing polyphonous identity in the speech of African American drag queens. Reinventing identities: The gendered self in discourse, 313-331.

Barrett, R. (2015). Drag (linguistically defined). The International Encyclopedia of Human Sexuality, 314-314.

Barrett, R. (2017). From drag queens to leathermen: Language, gender, and gay male subcultures. Oxford University Press.

Calder, J. (2016). Hand/s/ome women: The role of/s/in multi-modal gender performances among SoMa drag queens. New Ways of Analysing Variation, 45.

Calder, J. (2019). The fierceness of fronted/s: Linguistic rhematization through visual transformation. Language in Society, 48(1), 31-64.

Doonan, S. (2019). Drag: The Complete Story. London: Lawrence King Publishing.

Frankel, S., & Ha, S. (2019, December). Something Seems Fishy: Mainstream Consumer Response to Drag Queen Imagery. In International Textile and Apparel Association Annual Conference Proceedings (Vol. 76, No. 1). Iowa State University Digital Press.

Gudelunas, D. (2017). RuPaul’s Drag Race and the Shifting Visibility of Drag Culture: The Boundaries of Reality TV. Germany: Springer International Publishing.

(EMBEDDED LINK 3) Katz, Michael. 15 Jun, 2019. “’We are a welcoming city across the board’: Thousands celebrate Boise Pride Festival,” Idaho Statesman. https://www.idahostatesman.com/news/local/article231484523.html

(EMBEDDED LINK 5) Lang, Nico. 15 Apr, 2020. “Gay Bars Bet on Virtual Happy Hours to Save Them From Extinction,” Vice. https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/qjdy8q/gay-bars-bet-on-virtual-happy-hours-to-save-them-from-extinction 

(EMBEDDED LINK 1 ) McGahan, Jason. 29 May, 2019. “Before Stonewall, the Queer Revolution Started Right Here in Los Angeles” Los Angeles Magazine. https://www.lamag.com/citythinkblog/before-stonewall-gay-pride-history/

Moncrieff, M.. & Lienard, P. (2017). A Natural History of the Drag Queen Phenomenon. Evolutionary Psychology, 15(2). 

(EMBEDDED LINK 2) Ramsey, Nick. 26 Jun, 2019. “Drag's 'power of rebellion' is keeping Stonewall legacy alive,” NBC News. https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/drag-s-power-rebellion-keeping-stonewall-legacy-alive-n1021751

(EMBEDDED LINK 4) Savage, Rachel, M. Laveites, and E. Anarte. 19 May, 2020. “Gay Bars Around the World Facing Collapse Amid Coronavirus Pandemic” Huffington Post via Reuters. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/gay-bars-coronavirus-pandemic-pressure_n_5ebbee7cc5b61c09e5dca448?fbclid 

Van Herk, G. (2012). What is Sociolinguistics? Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell. 

 



Dr. Chris VanderStouwe

Lecturer in Linguistics, Department of English

Advisory Board, Gender Studies Program

Boise State University

[email protected]